It is hard for Christians to imagine not celebrating Christmas. Yet, there is no evidence of a Christmas celebration in the church until after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Thereafter, the Feast of the Nativity appears in the Julian calendar on December 25th, at the time of the winter solstice when pagans celebrated the rebirth of the sun.
European Christians later adapted the story in other ways. The manger was represented as a wooden rack or "crib," although in Palestine it would have been a stone ledge in the wall of a stable. And in Middle English the Feast of the Nativity was called "Christes masse," the mass of Christ, which eventually was shortened to "Christmas."
When the Puritans came to power in England, Christmas was outlawed as a Catholic festival. The prohibition against celebrating Christmas led to riots in 1647, and after Puritans were voted out of office Christmas was once again made legal. In New England, however, Puritan zeal persisted, and in Massachusetts Christmas celebrations were not permitted until the second half of the nineteenth century. The flood of immigrants to the New World turned the tide. Germans brought their Christmas tree. Irish put lights in their windows. Catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe sung their native carols and protested having to work on Christmas Day!
Eventually, a surge of enthusiasm swept away all resistance. Neither the moral authority of the church, nor the power of the state could prevent the celebration of Christmas. It is almost as if the spirit of Christmas has a life of its own ― undisciplined, chaotic, commercial, fantastic, seemingly irrepressible!
At its best, Christmas represents the human hope that love may someday rule all creation. Of course, this is fantastic! A king born in a stable, angels singing, a star in the heavens lighting the way, shepherds and wise men gathering around a manger . . . Legends also tell that vines flowered, bore grapes, and produced wine, and that the ox and the ass in the stable received human speech so they could join in praising the wondrous birth. The Christmas fantasy not only transforms the lives of men and women, but also plants and animals!
The stories and legends of Christmas tell of the unity and serenity in God's whole creation. The peace that we celebrate is nothing less than the peace of God. In two millennia, however, we have not been able to bring the miracle of Christmas into the affairs of nations, let alone into our daily lives. May we allow the spirit of Christmas to transform our faith!
Christmas is a mirror in which we see reflected what life might be. We see ourselves ― moved by generosity, inspired by hope, uplifted by love. The homeless family is seen as Mary and Joseph. The orphaned child ― cast off by the millions because of war, poverty and AIDS ― becomes the babe in the manger.
Let the spirit of Christmas catch your fancy, and live a Christmas faith! Amen.
December 24, 2002